" The Others Aren’t Just Figures Made of Wood"

Der Standard (10/09/04)

Anita Zielina

In an Austrian "Peace Camp" Israeli and Palestinian Youth Worked Toward a Perspective Living Together without Violence

"You learned that wrong in school," reported Mike Moffat, a Jewish participant of the Peace Camp on the tone of discussions between Jews and Palestinians which suddenly could have ended abruptly. "At the beginning, it was very difficult to understand the other side," confirms Dima Khoury, a Palestinian participant.

Hardened Fronts
The often fully diverse interpretations of history and years of living in fear and insecurity have hardened the fronts in the Middle East conflict. Some 103 youth from both sides now had the possibility of meeting each other in the Döbriacher Friedenscamp organized by the Austrian Kinderfreunde in a neutral atmosphere. The goal: To offer the young generation the possibility of meeting their "arch-enemies" peacefully and with tolerance.

War of Children
The youth camp is part of an initiative that is urgently necessary for resolving the bloody Middle East conflict. "Young people from both sides are tired of having to live with this conflict," reports the project’s director, Daniele Pruner. Under-aged suicide bombers on the Palestinian side and young female soldiers in the Israeli Army: The conflict surrounding the "Holy Land" is, above all, also a war of children.

A New Generation
" The strength of the project lies in having the opportunity to confront a new generation with the idea of a peaceful youth," writes Daniele Pruner, the hostess of Kinderfreunde, and that is the intention behind the initiative made up of seven socialist youth organizations in Israel, Palestina, Great Britain and Austria - some 103 young people in the ages of 15 and 25 overcame their prejudice and came to the camp in Döbriach, Austria.

Bureaucratic Hurdles
Palestinians from West Jordan met Jewish and Arab Israelis. Palestinians from the Gaza Strip failed to overcome the hurdles of bureaucracy in leaving the security zone; in other words, they were not granted permission to travel outside the region. Also those who were allowed to leave were confronted with a long road ahead. The youth from West Jordan had to pass six checkpoints until they finally, after two days of travel, arrived at the Jordanian capital of Amman, in order to fly from there to Austria.

Difficulties in Getting to Know One Another
During the first few days, there was great insecurity on both sides, said the young Palestinian, Dima Khoury. "After I got to know the others, it was a wonderful experience." Through discussions, games and mediation, one tried to break down the prejudice. There was one particular issue these young people were unable to agree upon: The Palestinian refugees’ right of return. "The days spent in the camp have completely changed my attitude," claimed Mike Moffat. "We came here as enemies and left as friends."

Reluctant Politics
In the coming years, the youth organization, Kinderfreunde, wishes to repeat the project. The financing is lacking, claimed the Secretary General of the group’s umbrella organization, Uwe Ostendorff. He accuses politics of hypocrisy. Politicians officially support the peace process, but when it concerns supporting concrete projects, it is lacking. Nonetheless, there is no lack of commitment, ideas and will in order to carry on with the project.

"This project can represent only a first step towards people understanding one another," knows Daniela Pruner. "But we believe that peace in the Middle East is possible and viable." This is a commitment that David Ben Gurion, founder of the State of Israel, surely would have admired. Because from him comes the phrase: "He who in Israel doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist!"